The Legacy of Professor Dan Olweus, Part Two

Fulfilling his dream may require a change of perspective.

Posted Oct 20, 2020

You can read Part 1 of this series here.

In Part 1 of this series, attention was brought to the perplexing fact that the passing of Prof. Dan Olweus, one of the most influential modern psychologists, did not receive any recognition in the news media. As his leading (and almost sole) critic, I find myself in the odd position of being the one trying to bring awareness of his legacy to the society that has so enthusiastically embraced his teachings.

Part 2 examines the practical legacy of almost half-a-century of Olweus’ professional influence. Are we better off for it? 

The results of the research on the Olweus program

Olweus’ pioneering work on bullying has inspired thousands of research studies. Yet that research continues finding that anti-bullying programs fail to help the overwhelming majority of bullied children. He gained prominence in the 1980s with a research study showing a respectable reduction in bullying of 50 percent after two years of the correct implementation of his program in a large number of Scandinavian schools.

However, such positive results for his program have rarely been replicated. In the most massive study ever conducted on his program, the reduction in the number of victims of bullying was about 12 percent, meaning that only about 1 out of every 8 victims had their problem solved. Furthermore, the research reports neglect to inform us what percentage of children had their bullying problem intensified. Thus, the bullying epidemic continues, with bullying-related suicides occurring with tragic frequency.

Poor effectiveness of anti-bullying laws

Olweus insisted that children have "a fundamental democratic right... to feel safe in school and to be spared the oppression and repeated, intentional humiliation involved in bullying." The fields of academic psychology and education championed this right, leading to legislation holding schools responsible for guaranteeing it. 

The problem is, no one has figured out how to fulfill such a guarantee. Yet the anti-bullying community has foisted responsibility for it on our schools and made sure the public knows about it. There is an annual Bullying Prevention Awareness Month (in full swing as I am writing) in which anti-bullying organizations, with the eager assistance of the media, spread awareness of the need to implement anti-bullying efforts and policies.

However, some of these recommended efforts and policies are of questionable benefit. Not surprisingly, state legislatures periodically find themselves needing to update their anti-bullying laws because they haven't fixed the problem.

Increased tension within the school community

As a result of anti-bullying expectations, tensions within school communities have elevated. Parents, who may have no idea how to stop their own couple of children from tormenting each other at home, demand from the school that it makes all children stop doing it. Fearing lawsuits, the school follows anti-bullying mandates to investigate, conduct hearings, and administer consequences to and/or rehabilitate offenders. Not wanting to be found guilty, each child insists they are innocent, and the other is guilty, so hostilities among them intensify. The informers may become objects of scorn among their peers.

Schools are required to involve the parents, who also enter the fray, sometimes leading to feuds between families. If the school fails to make all parties happy, the dissatisfied ones blame the school and may even file a lawsuit against it. The school tries to defend itself and might lay blame on the parents in return, and hostilities shoot through the roof.

An excellent source of information on the problems caused to the school community by the war against bullying is the 2013 book by psychologist Susan Eva Porter, Bully Nation: Why America's Approach to Childhood Aggression is Bad for Everyone.

Economic cost

There is an economic cost—mostly hidden—to the taxpayer from the campaign against bullying. Now the school staff is required to spend substantial amounts of time teaching about bullying, paying extra attention to the way children treat each other and conducting investigations and hearings. Each complaint can demand several hours of staff time, and time costs money. 

Some schools even add "bullying coordinators" to their payroll specifically to deal with bullying. Because schools are held responsible specifically for the aggression that falls into the category of bullying, much of their effort may go into trying to determine that the reported aggression did not meet the criteria for bullying. This doesn’t solve anything, but it may get the school off the hook.

Risks for mental health

Last but not least, we need to consider what antibullying has done to our mental health. It is obvious that mental health requires us to take personal responsibility for our feelings and problems. This age-old idea was beautifully explained by PT blogger Loretta Breuning in her piece "Personal Responsibility and Mental Health."

Why take personal responsibility for our role in our ongoing relationship difficulties when we’re being taught that people who regularly treat us badly are bullies and that bullies are totally responsible for the situation?  Why work to make matters better when it is so much easier to inform the authorities?

What happens to our self-confidence and self-esteem when we buy into the idea that we are powerless to handle our bullies on our own and need the help of everyone around us? How do we cope when there is no hoped-for bystander around to save us?

And how do we avoid despair when we discover that the authorities may not be able to solve our bullying problems and that the bullying may get worse?

Delaying discovery of better approach

Ultimately, we would all like to see an effective solution to the bullying problem. It is likely impossible to solve it by convincing everyone to stop being bullies—someone who is considered a bully may think the real bully is the other person. 

I argue that the best way to put a stop to bullying is to teach people how not to be victims. Then people don’t need to rely on others to handle their bullies for them. Their self-concept improves because they feel competent. They earn the respect of their peers. And they are better prepared to handle hostility when they inevitably encounter it in the future. These are the goals of all relationship therapies and self-help systems.

While Olweus created a comprehensive approach that requires the involvement of the entire community, the victim, who may be in the best position to solve the problem, is the only person he absolved from duty—other than to tell, of course. This is now a fundamental tenet of antibullying. Anyone who suggests that victims should learn to deal with their bullies risks getting accused of the modern taboo of "blaming the victim." So how will the leading bullying researchers, for whom we rely on for the answers on bullying, ever discover the potential of victim-centered approaches? 

Few ideas sound better to us than the right to a life without fear of bullies. That's why antibullying remains so phenomenally popular despite its failure. After decades of its dominance, perhaps it is time to let go of this approach to bullying.

We can credit Olweus for starting a worldwide movement to make the world a more peaceful place. We can appreciate his body of research findings elucidating aspects of aggression and those involved in it. But as can be demonstrated, our profession has long possessed solutions to bullying. We just haven’t realized it because we didn’t use the term “bullying” to describe the phenomena we were dealing with. We can work to fulfill Olweus's dream, though it may require a change of perspective.


Bully/victim problems in school: Facts and intervention by Dan Olweus

European Journal of Psychology of Education 1991, Vol. XlI, ltD 4,495-510

Bully Nation: Why America's Approach to Childhood Aggression is Bad for Everyone, by Susan Eva Porter, PhD